Extremist militants may have been seeking to strike at government during time of perceived weakness
Al Shabab silence suggests miscalculation over Mogadishu bombing
Somalia's Al Shabab militants are suspected of carrying out the lorry bombing that killed more than 300 people in Mogadishu on Saturday, even though the extremist group has been uncharacteristically silent after the attack.
Al Shabab, whose name translates as “the youth”, controlled most of the Somali capital before being forced out by an African Union (AU) force in 2011 and is believed to have had about 9,000 fighters at its peak.
Diminished since then by the AU's continuing campaign, US air strikes and internal divisions, the group has still managed to stage frequent attacks in Mogadishu, although none on the scale of Saturday's bombing.
Although it has not claimed responsibility, the attack was probably an attempt by the group to take advantage of recent political instability that has left the UN-backed government more vulnerable than it has been in years.
The political rift originates from differences between some Somali regions and the central government over the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt over allegations that Doha supports terrorism.
Saudi Arabia is Mogadishu’s biggest benefactor, while the UAE has trained the country's military and has provided significant aid in recent years. However, Somalia's government has found itself being increasingly courted by Doha and has even allowed Qatari planes to use Somali airspace after the Arab countries cut ties.
However, Wahhabi extremist group may have misjudged the popular reaction to the attack. Somali politicians and the general population, the majority of whom are followers of Sufi Islam, have been unanimous in their condemnation of the bombing.
The government has blamed Al Shabab for the attack, and president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed said on Monday that it was “time to unite and pray together”.
Al Shabab was formed as a splinter group of the Islamic Courts Union after Ethiopia’s military entered Somalia to eject the Islamist government was ejected from the capital in 2006.
The group managed to control most of the capital by 2011, but was forced out by African Union operation. A year later it pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Despite continuing support for the Somali army from AU troops and US air power, Al Shabab has a strong presence across southern Somalia.
American air strikes in co-ordination with local forces have targeted Al Shabab leaders and training camps, most recently killing Ali Jabal, one of the group’s top commanders.
Fracturing within the group has also decreased the group’s power. In 2015, ISIL launched an online campaign urging Al Shabab to switch loyalty from Al Qaeda and join its "caliphate" under the leadership of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Although the group maintained its affiliation with Al Qaeda, several senior commanders and their followers began pledging allegiance to ISIL, leading to clashes.
Al Shabab members have also been defecting to pro-government forces over the past five years, mostly as a result of a lack funding from extortion after losing control of Mogadishu.
Despite its diminished strength, Al Shabab remains Somalia’s most violent group whose actions compound the difficulties of an impoverished, war-torn country commonly described as the most-failed state of the past 25 years.